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Should enterprises use open source productivity suites?

Many IT administrators remain wary of open source software, often citing its lack of any warranty protection. Expert Michael Cobb explains why enterprise pros shouldn't worry too much about giving the free tools a try.

I've noticed that free and open source productivity suites like OpenOffice and Lotus Symphony seem to be growing in popularity. Should I be concerned about my users starting to experiment with these applications and handle files created by them?
Many IT administrators remain wary of open source software, often citing its lack of any warranty protection. However, it's extremely unusual for proprietary software suppliers to actually warrant that their software will provide uninterrupted and error-free operation. Although there is no expensive hotline to call if you have a problem or query, many open source programs are well-supported by enthusiastic user support communities, which provide active forums, up-to-date documentation and tutorials. Mature open source software, particularly in the field of IT security, can often be a viable alternative to proprietary software.

A series of UK government-sponsored trials into open source implementations produced some interesting results. The trials found that open source application software used for specific tasks is often fit for purpose and that buying specialist software can lead buyers to suffer "hidden lock-in."

If your users feel that there are open source programs that would benefit your organization, then it is certainly worth investigating them further. I would recommend, however, that you conduct a controlled trial rather that let your users "experiment." Allowing users to freely download software that has not been correctly assessed and tested can lead to programs that contain malware or spyware being installed inadvertently. By setting up a managed user group to review approved applications, you can supervise who can install which programs. You can also monitor any system compatibility and usability issues.

While assessing a software application, it is important to review what the software does, ensure that its functionality matches your requirements for a particular task, and understand what help and support is provided. You need to be sure that you have the in-house skills and resources to support any additional applications that you allow your users to install and use. And, of course, files generated by office-type applications need to be compatible with the mainstream applications used by your clients and vendors.

Although open source software is less likely to be targeted by hackers than mainstream applications, subscribe to any product newsletters; these will keep you abreast of any security alerts. Also read and understand the open source license under which it is distributed and how it can be used. Open source software is not the answer to every situation, but some applications have been around for several years, won numerous awards, and can offer a viable alternative to organizations on a tight budget.

More information:

  • Learn how federal aid has helped uncover a number of open source flaws.
  • A new group of technology vendors, including Microsoft and Symantec, are joining together to raise awareness about the need for more secure code.
  • This was last published in March 2008

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